A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Question Words in Essay-Type Examinations and their Interpretations by Advanced Learners and their Teachers

Ravindra B Tasildar


Study skills like note-taking, note-making and summarizing, introduced to learners of English as a Second Language, (L2) learners, are part of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), one of the branches of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), a sub-discipline of English Language Teaching (ELT). Nevertheless, one of the important study skills, preparing for examination has not received the required attention.  The question words in essay-type questions have also failed to find a place in the books on study skills (Wallace, 1998). The rubric of question papers is one of the under-researched topics in ELT.  This paper is an attempt to examine whether monolingual (here English) learners’ dictionaries (LDs) provide any help to advanced learners in preparing for examinations. Taking into account the context of Indian learners, the paper studies the ways in which question words are understood by students and teachers and then examines the meanings of question words in advanced learners’ dictionaries, EAP dictionaries and Indian editions of mini dictionaries.  The paper tries to find out whether the entries of some question words in the advanced learners’ dictionaries help students to comprehend questions in Indian university question papers at the postgraduate level.  It was observed that entries in the LDs are inadequate to meet the needs of Indian advanced learners. The paper concludes by stressing the need to append a comprehensive list of question words with illustrations from question papers and contextual meanings to the LDs to help advanced learners in India to prepare for examinations.

KeywordsEAP, Study skills, Dictionaries, Question words, Indian Universities


Note-taking, note-making and summarising are three study skills that are introduced to the learners of English as Second Language (L2). These study skills are part of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), one of the branches of English for Specific Purposes (ESP)—a sub-discipline of English Language Teaching (ELT). Preparing for examinations is also a study skill which has not received enough attention, though in some ELT books we find chapters such as “Preparing for the Examination” (Forrester, 1968, pp. 106-109) and “Preparing to Pass Examinations” (Yorkey, 1970, pp. 209-219). Teacher’s handbooks and Indian ELT books with units on study skills, assessment and evaluation such as Saraswathi (2004), Krishnaswamy & Lalitha (2006) and Kaushik & Bajwa (2009), to name a few, neglect the study skill of preparing for examinations. In fact, the rubric of question papers is one of the most under-researched topics in ELT. Wallace (1998), has a separate unit on assessment, study techniques and examination but there is no mention of question words. Besides, the aforesaid Indian books on ELT fail to consider the importance of question words for Indian L2 learners. Thus, question words fail to find a place in the available literature on preparing for examinations.

The Study of Question Words

In the global academia, the term “question words” is known by different labels such as “Common essay terms” - Saint Mary’s University (SMU); “Exam terms” - University of Manchester (UoM); “Instruction verbs” - University of Kent (UoK); “Instruction words” - Newcastle University (NU); and “Task words” - University of New South Wales (UNSW). Indian scholar Alemelu (1988, p. 112) refers to them as “imperative” words. For uniformity and consistency, in this article, I will use the term “question words”.

As mentioned earlier, in the Indian ELT scenario, use of question words in essay-type questions in question papers is one of the least discussed issues. One may come across the use of question words such as “parse” and “copy out” in the question paper of English Grammar and Idioms  dated 16 November 1863 of the University of Mumbai (Patankar, 1999, p. 140). Alemelu (1988) reports the use of “imperative” words in 289 questions in 22 M.A. (English) question papers at the University of Madras during 1985 and 1986. In these papers the word “discuss” appears 69 times, “consider” is used 28 times and “comment” is used 22 times (Alemelu, 1988, p. 112). After an analysis of 228 questions in 19 M.A. (English) question papers of the University of Mumbai, Tasildar (2016) found that “discuss” was the most frequent question word with 58 instances. This was followed by 29 instances of “comment on” and 15 instances of “comment”. Tasildar (2016) also noted the incomprehension of question words such as “state”, “explain”, “elucidate”, “furnish”, “outline” and “trace” by Indian L2 learners.  However, although a range of question words have been used in these papers, there does  not seem to be any clarity regarding the difference between these words.  This issue has bothered  me for a long time; I felt that students seem to be writing the same essays regardless of the question word prompt, and teachers, paper setters and evaluators also seem to expect the same answers/essays regardless of the change in the question word used.  The words seem to be interpreted in a similar manner.  To find out whether this hunch of mine was correct I decided to carry out a small research study.

Interpretations of Question Words

A survey on the interpretation of question words was undertaken on a small group of respondents—six teachers and fourteen M.A. (English) students. The respondents were requested to respond to eight questions that had eight different question words  with the same stem.  The questions were :

  1. Analyse the plot-structure of King Lear.
  2. Assess the plot-structure of King Lear.
  3. Comment on the plot-structure of King Lear.
  4. Describe the plot-structure of King Lear.
  5. Discuss the plot-structure of King Lear.
  6. Examine the plot-structure of King Lear.
  7. Explain the plot-structure of King Lear.
  8. Evaluate the plot-structure of King Lear.

The task given to them was as follows:

Dear Student

Read carefully the following questions on a Shakespearean tragedy. (the 8 questions given above were listed here).

What answers would you write to these questions? 

I request you to write the points in brief in the space provided.

Nearly all the students provided somewhat similar answers to these prompts, irrespective of the question words. They focused only on the aspects of the “plot structure”. Representative responses to two question words, “describe” and “explain” are reproduced in Table 1 as follows:

Table 1

Responses of two participants to question words

Describe the plot-structure of King Lear.

Respondent 1 (S1)

Respondent 2 (S14)

It has beginning, middle and end.

It is divided into five acts; scenes are interrelated to each other.

This tragedy is divided into five acts.

It is conflict between King Lear and his daughters.

Explain the plot-structure of King Lear.

The main reason behind this tragedy Tragic flaw.

Internal conflict in mind of King Lear goes mad at the end.

Division of acts.

Conflict between characters.

Reason of King Lear’s madness.



A quick look at the two sets of responses (to describe and explain) makes it clear that the students did not pay any attention to the question words. The answers they thought they needed to write, (stated by them in point form) are nearly identical. 

The interpretation of the question words by the teachers was not very different from what had been written by the students. The teachers were also given the same eight questions but their task was differently worded.  Their task read: 

Dear Teacher,

Read carefully the following questions on a Shakespearean tragedy. (the 8 questions given above were listed here).

What answers would you expect from MA (English) Part II students to these questions? 

I request you to write the points in brief in the space provided.

The teachers also did not find any difference in the focus of the answers despite the substitution of question words. The expectations of the respondents for the two words, “describe” and “explain” are reproduced in Table 2.

Table 2

Representative expectations of the teachers

Describe the plot-structure of King Lear.

Respondent 1 (T5)

Respondent 2 (T3)

Students should tell what the plot structure is, and need not necessarily take a position for or against or elaborate on a particular point of view. They should write what meets to their eyes  and not interpret the plot.

It is expected to describe the storyline and the movement of the plot from  beginning to the end.

Explain the plot structure of King Lear.

Students should make clear the plot structure of the play. They should reveal the hidden aspects of the plot.

Students should make things easy to understand so that what is not immediately obvious about the plot becomes obvious.

One has to explain the plot as it is. For example, it begins with the flash-back and at the end the circle completes (not in this case).


It is clear from the table that the respondents (teachers in classrooms) treated the question words in the following questions as synonymous.

  1. Assess the plot structure of King Lear.
  2. Evaluate the plot structure of King Lear.
  3. Examine the plot structure of King Lear,

In order to find out whether those teachers who became paper setters know the meanings of question words, a few representative samples of question words used by them,   are examined.  These have been extracted from actual question papers of B.A. Examination (2013 Pattern) of Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU) held in April 2017.

  1. Answer a character sketch of Rosie in the novel The Guide. (Q. 4 (i) Third Year B.A. (External) Examination, 2017 English Special Paper III (Appreciating Novel)
  2. Enlist the important elements of drama found in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (Q. 5 (4) Second Year B.A. (Regular) Examination, 2017 Special English S-1 (Appreciating Drama)

If this is the case with students, teachers and paper setters alike, it is necessary to find out whether these question words are actually similar.  As dictionaries are the last resort for nuances in meanings, a quick check with  any learners’ dictionary (LD) will help us to know if these different words are synonyms or not, and if we, teachers, have to educate ourselves and help our students perceive the differences in these question words. Taking into account the context of Indian learners, I will study the meanings of some question words from advanced learners’ dictionaries, EAP dictionaries and mini dictionaries. I will also try to understand whether the entries of these question words will help them comprehend questions better.

Learner’s Dictionaries and Meanings of Question Words

Advanced learners’ dictionaries

It is well known that LDs offer a lot of additional help on many aspects of highly frequent words. This new information  specifically addresses the needs of foreign students (Tickoo, 2003, p. 281). For the purposes of this paper, I consulted the following dictionaries to check and compare the meanings of some question words:

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (CALD) (2013),

Collins Cobuild English dictionary for Advanced Learners (COBUILD) (2001),

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) (2009),

Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners (MEDAL) (2009), 

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (OALD) (1989) and (2015).

To see if the dictionary entries for some question words can help in locating appropriate meanings, as would be needed if the question words are expected to have different focuses, and entries. Here are the dictionary entries for the question word “assess” in OALD (1989) and OALD (2015).

Table 3

Dictionary entries of word “assess” in OALD (1989) and OALD (2015)


OALD, 1989, p. 60

OALD, 2015, p. 78


decide or fix the amount of sth: assess sb’s taxes/income, assess the damage of £ 350

to make a judgement about the nature and quality of sb /sth: It is difficult to assess the effects of these changes.


decide or fix the value of (sth), evaluate: have you a house assessed by a valuer

to calculate the amount or value of sth syn- estimate: They have assessed the amount of compensation to be paid.


estimate the quality of sth: It’s difficult to assess the impact of the President’s speech. I’d assess your chances as extremely low.



These entries reveal two things.

Firstly, quite a few question words seem to be synonymous. For instance, OALD (1989) mentions “evaluate” and “assess” as synonyms, and OALD (2015) mentions “assess” and “estimate” as synonyms. Given below are the meanings of word “evaluate” in these two editions.

  1. Evaluate: Find out or form an idea of the amount or value of (sb/sh), assess (OALD, 1989, p. 411)
  2. Evaluate: To form an opinion of the amount, value or quality of sth after thinking about it carefully syn- assess. (OALD, 2015, p. 525)

Though superficially, the word “examine” appears to be similar to “assess” and “evaluate”, it is synonymous with “analyse”, “review”, “study” and “discuss” (OALD, 2015, p. 529). Thus the entries of the question words in OALD (2015) add to the confusion. The synonymous nature of question words makes one wonder about the selection of different question words in a question paper. A close scrutiny of the M.A. (English) question papers (April 2009) of the University of Mumbai indicated that paper setters use different question words in order to avoid repetition and bring variety into the questions. 

Secondly, according to the advanced learners’ dictionaries, the meaning of one (question) word is explained by another (question) word. The following table 4 exemplifies this.

Table 4

Dictionary meanings of the question word “outline”



CALD (2013)

describe, to give the main facts about something (p. 1090)

COBUILD (2001)

if you outline an idea or a plan, you explain it in a general way (p. 1094)

LDOCE (2009)

to describe something in a general way, giving the main points but not the details (p. 1239)

MEDAL (2009)

to give the main ideas of a plan or a piece of writing without giving all the details (p.1008)

OALD (2015)

to give a description of the main facts or points involved in something (p.1093)


Here the meanings of the word “outline” are defined by words such as “describe” and “explain”.  Hence, it is left to the learner to choose the appropriate meaning of the word in the question: “Outline the narrative pattern of detective fiction” from the third year B.A. question paper of “Popular Culture” (Old course) in the April 2010 exam held at the University of Mumbai.

The EAP dictionaries

The EAP dictionaries are made primarily for research students in the United Kingdom and the United States and not meant for learners in South Asian countries. Kosem (2010) has already pointed out the limitations of EAP dictionaries such as the Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary (2009), Compact Oxford English Dictionary for University and College Students (2006) and Longman Exams Dictionary (LED) (2006). Such dictionaries also do not focus on question words in their supplements. For example, LED (2006) specially prepared for examination purposes, does not include a separate list of question words. Similarly, in the supplement Oxford Academic Writing Tutor, information related to eleven question words (p. 5) provided under “Answering the Question” in Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE) (2014) is not congruent with the meanings of these question words provided in the main dictionary. For instance, the entries for the word “examine” reveals that these EAP dictionaries do not provide any special meaning of the word. LED (2006) gives the meaning of the verb “examine” as to look at something carefully and thoroughly because you want to find out more about it (p. 509). Similarly, in OLDAE (2014) the word “examine” means to consider or study an idea or subject very carefully (p. 292).

Exploring Other Options

It is clear that the entries in LDs appear to be inadequate to meet the needs of Indian advanced learners, hence I have made an attempt to explore other options. I will now survey some glossaries of question words in books and by educational institutes.

Glossaries in books

Anderson et al. (1970), Yorkey (1970) and Schlegel (1995) provide meanings of some commonly used question words in their glossaries, but the number of words given in each glossary differs. Anderson, Durston & Poole (1970) include twelve words, Yorkey (1970) includes nine words and Schlegel (1995) includes nineteen words. I found that not only do the meanings of the question words differ from glossary to glossary, but the meaning of one (question) word is defined by other (question) word, as in dictionaries. For example, in Anderson et al. (1970) the word “examine” is used to define the meaning of the question words “compare”, “evaluate” and “summarize”. The entries in these glossaries promote subjectivity instead of minimizing it.

Glossaries by universities

Some educational institutes outside India such as the University of Leicester (UoL) and UoM assist learners in developing their study skills by providing tips related to note-taking, note-making and preparing for examinations. Along with these two universities, NU, San Jose State University (SJSU), SMU, University of Hawaii (UoH), UoK and UNSW to name a few, also provide glossaries of question words. Generally, “wh-” words are not part of these glossaries. The number of question words provided in these glossaries range from five to thirty-six.

Table 5

The number of question words in glossaries










Number of Question words










The entries in these glossaries are lengthy and sometimes provide contrasting meanings for the question words. For instance, the SMU glossary mentions “defend” as a synonym of “justify” and “review” as synonym of “summarize”. It also mentions “explain” as the opposite of “describe” (see Table 7). 

Table 6

Glossary meanings of the question word “explain”




Give reasons; describe how something happens


Requires essays which are fully thought out and developed in as much detail as you have time for.

Ask yourself: “Why is this the case?” and “What are the main points?”


In many ways “Explain” is the opposite of a “Describe” essay, and this assignment requires you to present a “reasons” associated with a topic rather than just facts. You should focus on the “how” of a subject and analyse a cause-and-effect relationship. This essay should get at the deeper meaning behind your topic, often including historical and cultural influences.


Give reasons for what is asked. Make plain or clear; tell “how” to do;

provide the causes.


Make plain and clear; give reasons for.


Clarify a topic by giving a detailed account of how and why it occurs, or what is meant by the use of this term in a particular context. Your writing should have clarity so that complex procedures or sequences of events can be understood, defining key terms where appropriate, and be substantiated with relevant research.


In explanatory answers it is imperative that you clarify and interpret the material you present. In such an answer it is best to state the “how or why,” reconcile any differences in opinion or experimental results, and, where possible, state causes. The aim is to make plain the conditions which give rise to whatever you are examining.


Tell how things work or how they came to be the way they are, including perhaps some need to “describe” and to “analyse”.


The words selected by these universities are not frequently seen in the question papers of Indian universities. For instance, the question word “substantiate”, found nine times in nineteen M.A. (English) question papers (April 2009) of the University of Mumbai is not included in the glossaries of the universities abroad considered here. Thus, it seems difficult to replicate these glossaries for Indian L2 learners.

Unlike the aforementioned universities located in native speakers’ countries, Indian universities do not provide any assistance to L2 learners in this regard.

Are These Sources Reliable?

As the list of commonly confused words or the usage notes in LDs do not include question words such as “provide”, “furnish”, “give”, “distinguish between” and “difference between”, I decided to scrutinize the supplement section “Commonly Confused Pair of Words” of 2004 and 2007 in the Indian editions of the Oxford Mini Dictionary. In the 2004 edition, “imply” means “suggest strongly” and “infer” means “deduce or conclude” (2004, p. 658). In the 2007 edition “imply” means “suggest indirectly” and “infer” means “work out from suggestions” (2007, p. 7). Thus the meanings of “imply” and “infer” in the two editions of Oxford Mini Dictionary provide different meanings.

Besides, there is very little possibility that an advanced learner studies comparative meanings of a question word from different sources (see the following table).

Table 7

Meaning of the question word “describe” found in different sources



COBUILD (2001)

If you describe a person, object, event, or situation, you say what they are like or what happened (p. 411)

LDOCE (2009)

to say what something or someone is like by giving details about them (p. 456)

Anderson et al. (1970)

give an account of (p. 8).


This term calls for you to present an account of a topic with emphasis on description rather than analysis. An instructor who assigns this essay question with this term is likely interested in hearing more about the “what” and the “how”, rather than the “why” of a topic.


In a descriptive answer you should recount, characterize, sketch or relate in narrative form.


It is evident from this table, that if a learner refers to a particular source or a specific edition, their comprehension of the question word will be limited to that source or edition. This may result in different interpretations of the question word. Though the source may provide inadequate definition of a question word, the learner will consider the meaning he/she comes across as the only appropriate definition of that question word.


The synonymous nature of question words and the ignorance of learners coupled with the inadequacy of the reference sources including LDs makes the issue of question words complicated. Some of the teachers / paper setters are aware of the nuances of the question words. They expect different answers from students and use question words accordingly. However, the responses of the students raise doubts about the fulfilment of the educational objectives of using different question words to test different cognitive abilities of learners (for revised Bloom’s Taxonomy see Anderson and Krathwohl, 2001).

In light of these observations, in order to help the Indian advanced learners in preparing for examinations, it is imperative to have a comprehensive list of question words and their meanings with examples from question papers. The list can be in the form of a separate supplement appended to the Indian editions of LDs. English being the medium of instruction from primary to tertiary levels in educational institutes across India, such a list is essential for teachers and learners of English and other subjects. Moreover, in the Indian context, such a list would be useful to understand question words in documents related to teaching profession like Manual for Self-Study Report by National Assessment and Accreditation Council (2013).



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Compact oxford English dictionary for university and college students (2006).  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Longman exams dictionary for upper intermediate – advanced learners (2006). Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

Longman dictionary of contemporary English (5th ed.). (2009). Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.

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Ravindra B. Tasildar is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, S.N. Arts, D.J.M. Commerce and B.N.S. Science College, Sangamner, Dist. Ahmednagar (Maharashtra).  ELT and Comparative Studies are his areas of special interest.